I watched the wonderful movie Life, Animated the other day, which is about Owen Suskind, who is autistic. I had read the book, by Owen’s dad Ron Suskind, although the movie covers Owen’s grown-up life in far more detail. As Aladdin once sang, let’s take you wonder by wonder…
Wonder #1: The movie shows ample footage of Owen during The Time Before. One often hears, at least in my communities, that parents can never bear to look at the home movie footage from the time that the child could speak and behave like any other neuro-typical peer. It’s too heart-breaking. And perhaps in real life, Ron and his wife Cornelia didn’t look at the movie’s re-purposed footage all that much. But the movie shows the footage and cuts to Ron and Cornelia, sometimes tearing up as though in reaction. Part of me was thinking – oh God, please stop, don’t make these parents relive this. But it was edited tautly and succinctly, just enough to establish paradise before paradise lost.
Wonder #2: The movie doesn’t even mention what may or may not have “caused” Owen’s autism. The book is similarly discreet, so it’s not like I was surprised, but still…having just watched Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe (a film I do not plan on reviewing on this blog), there is something remarkable about autism suddenly happening to a kid at age 3, and the movie about said kid not even touching on the topic of how? why?. Some might call that willful denial, but I loved that about the film. We had relatives visiting who pressed on the topic of how and why Dar has autism. For us, that’s in the rearview mirror, partly because I’m convinced Dar had his condition from birth. No, I don’t want other kids to suffer, and I do have opinions, and I do keep up with the science, but…pursuing that mystery does very little for Dar’s story, or Owen Suskind’s. So put a pin in it and leave it alone for now. Thank you Life, Animated.
Wonder #3: Economical moviemaking. The movie sped into the book’s greatest hits, from the “juicervose” epiphany to (years later) the “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli and Peter Pan” breakthrough, in the movie’s first half-hour. Even as I loved the pace, as a book-reader, I thought, whoa, what have they saved for the second half? But they had that all sorted. And they had things a book can’t give you, like Ron Suskind’s Iago/Gilbert Gottfried impression, which is priceless – especially as Ron tries to simulate the first time he did it, a time when maintaining it was also maintaining the first dialogue he’d had, ever, with his non-toddler child. (I cried.) The book also can’t give you the time that the real Gilbert Gottfried, along with the real Jonathan Freeman, showed up at Owen’s special-needs Disney film-fan club to reprise their film roles as Iago and Jafar. But the movie did. Talk about getting your three wishes.
Wonder #4: Permissions. Speaking of Owen’s special-needs Disney film-fan group, the minute we saw them I thought: did they give their permissions for their images to be used this way? Did their parents? What counts as informed consent when you have mental challenges? These questions really jumped out at me when one of Owen’s peers was seen in closeup…and thus it didn’t surprise me when that person was eventually revealed to be Owen’s girlfriend. But then – spoiler alert – she broke up with him! And they didn’t get back together, as far as we saw. But I guess she was still okay with the permissions. Or she had already given it away by then. Or her parents had. So many questions. Maybe I shouldn’t worry, and just let permissions be a wonder. Sort of like…
Wonder #5: The animation. I shouldn’t have been surprised that a movie called Life, Animated would feature copious animated recreations of real events in Owen’s life, but I loved them all the same. They’re done in a sort of animation-unplugged style, where you can almost see the pencils and stencils before the work is really filled in, sort of like a-ha’s “Take on Me” video, and that makes thematic sense: after all, Owen’s child life was very much a work in progress. And then there’s the Land of Lost Sidekicks, Owen’s entirely original idea, where we get to hang out with Baloo, Iago, Sebastian, Rafiki, and others during their downtime when not helping out heroes. I love this idea, which leads me to…
Wonder #6: Disney playing ball. Any reader of Suskind’s book realizes in about seven seconds that any movie of the book would need Disney’s permission. I know what you’re thinking: why wouldn’t Disney grant it? The book basically presents Disney as the savior of Owen, right? Well…Disney’s lawyers have been known for their over-fastidious tendencies, as well chronicled in James B. Stewart’s “Disney War” and Neal Gabler’s “Walt Disney.” I wondered if Disney preserved any kind of final cut or veto power. (The movie is not a Disney movie.) I wondered if to make Life, Animated, the Suskind family had to give up rights to the idea of The Land of Lost Sidekicks. (Yes, Disney owns those characters, but a more rapacious Ron might have tried to parlay the intellectual property into an idea without those particular characters. And yes, there is a six-minute movie of Owen’s idea out there somewhere.)
Life, Animated features a good deal of footage of Peter Pan (1953), which might owe to the thematic elements (as you may have heard, Peter Pan is a boy who avoids growing up, which has some consonance with the autistic life), but could also owe to Disney wishing to rehab that film in these politically correct times – the film’s treatment of Native Americans is excruciating, and you’re 100% right to guess that Life, Animated features 0% of those “red-man” scenes. There is a moment in Life, Animated when Owen watches his TV as Aladdin and Jasmine rise to the sky in their magic carpet as the film cross-cuts to Owen moving out of his parents house and into his own house, and I could have suh-worn that the film was about to play “A Whole New World.” But it didn’t. Despite ample use of scenes from The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, we never hear any songs from those…I started to wonder if Disney had drawn the line at music. Or charged more than the filmmakers were ready to pay. Not a big deal, just interesting from a film teacher’s perspective; I feel bad when filmmakers have to compromise for financial or legal reasons. (For example, unlike almost everyone on the internet, I love the show “Masters of Sex,” but it’s a clear weakness that a 1960s-set show features almost no songs from that period.)
Wonder #7: Ron and Cornelia are still together at the end of the movie. That may seem like nothing to you, but us parents of special-needs kids are well aware that the divorce rate is higher for our kind. It’s not exactly something we’re proud of. So I was happy and hopeful to see them together in the beginning and at the end, because I madly and deeply love my wife.
Wonder #8: Owen’s life, man, Owen’s life! At the end of the movie, 23-year-old Owen is living in his own apartment, dealing with the breakup with his girlfriend, and even holding down a job tearing tickets at a multiplex. OH MY GOD, can we dare hope that Dar could be half that independent? The odds are like those of a Chicago Cubs championship or a Donald Trump presidency. We all know those are both impossible. I lost it when Cornelia said to the camera, “it seems like just yesterday he wasn’t speaking.” Their yesterday is our today. But could their today be our tomorrow? I truly, deeply doubt it, but I am 110% thrilled for them, and watching Owen Suskind make it through life is sublime. The idea of Dar being anything like Owen is…is…
A whole new world?
Don’t you dare close your eyes
A hundred thousand things to see?
Hold your breath it gets better